Cairns, Australia: Working on a Banana Farm
As an Englishman, citizen, getting my hands on a one-year working holiday visa for Australia was straightforward. In fact, it took a grand total of around four hours. But, as I wanted to extend my visa for a second year, I had to complete three months of ‘regional’ work. In short, I had to find a job on a farm.
It was July 2014 and I had a fun, little job in Byron Bay, working at an infamous backpacker bar, called Cheeky Monkeys. My average day was split between promoting the bar in the afternoons and helping the chef prepare food in the evening; I enjoyed the variety. As part of my promotion, I capitalized on the World Cup hysteria by organising weekly, beach football competitions. I’d sign up backpackers to play in a short, round-robin style tournaments during the afternoon, before reconvening at the bar that evening for drinks. As host, I was permitted to play host and periodically dish out free drinks.
The job allowed me to learn a lot, constantly meet great people, and stay in the company of stunning women; it was a lot of fun. But I decided to leave in order to get my farmwork out of the way. I reasoned that if I found a job by August, I’d have my farmwork done by November; allowing me to travel the East Coast at the start of summer.
I flew north to Cairns and made inquiries at the farms whose details I’d collected over the previous few months. Cairns is located in the tropical North East of Australia, and its climate makes for a literal hotbed of farms. In the event none of my leads worked out, I’d have little trouble finding work on a nearby farm. Luckily, one of the farms, Bush Bananas, had a job for me – so I hopped on a bus to Cardwell, a small town three hours south of Cairns.
When I arrived, I made my way to the Kookaburra Holiday Park, the town’s largest caravan park. I was greeted by Rod, who, with his wife Leonie, had recently taken over the Kookaburra. He immediately took me under his wing, giving me the lay of the land and introducing me to a few people who had lived at the park for a while
The park was split into two parts: a large area for travelling retirees, known affectionately as Grey Nomads, to park their plush RVs, and a slightly smaller area comprised of small, self-contained units called dongers that Rod and Leonie had just built to rent out to backpackers.
I moved into one of the dongers (after sharing dorms for the last six months, having my own room was fantastic). I love that about travelling: the renewed appreciation you develop for little things, like a double bed, a TV, AC, and your own fridge. I moved in on Friday, and had the weekend to relax and settle in before starting work the following week.
On Monday morning, I was picked outside the Kookaburra by Liam, a backpacker from the North of England who’d been on the farm for eight months. The farm entrusted two of the more tenured backpackers with picking up some of the workers in one of its ‘Troupies’, a 4×4 vehicle with two parallel benches in the back that sat eight people in total.
Arriving at the farm for my first day, I was given a short orientation in the main warehouse before being ferried out to the banana paddocks. I was placed in the care of one of the supervisors, Anthony, who gave me a quick primer on safely getting the bananas from the trees to the trailers. A process that is commonly known throughout Australia as ‘humping’.
First, I was given a protector, a piece of padding a few inches thick that, being right-handed, I was to place over my right shoulder. I then had to follow a ‘cutter’: a colleague whose job was to assess the size of the bunch before cutting it down. When my cutter had found a suitable bunch, I had to pull the bunch close to my shoulder while the cutter swung his blade inches above my head. The bunch would land comfortably on my shoulder, and I’d walk over to the nearby tractor where someone would take it from me and attach it to the trailer. The other humpers and I would repeat this until the trailer was full, at which point it was taken back to the warehouse and replaced with an empty one.
The first week was tough and my body ached all over as I adjusted to rigours of my new job. The bananas could weigh anywhere from 15kg to a whopping 80kg, so it took a bit of getting used to. I’d find out later, through anecdotes and firsthand experience, that it wasn’t uncommon for someone not to make it through a week. I also learned that as big as the bananas were, humping was largely a matter of skill over strength, and you had to learn the right technique. It was a rite of passage for a new humper to lose their balance and drop a bunch on the ground; I was no exception.
Each day followed a similar routine in which I’d cycle between three roles: First, I’d hump until a trailer was filled and replaced with a fresh one. Then, I’d take a break from humping and hop on the back of a trailer where I’d attach the bunch I was brought with thick, rubber straps. With that trailer filled, I’d return to humping for another trailer and once that was done, it was time for the best part: driving the tractor. Driving the tractor gave you the chance to sit down for a while, required the least amount of thought, and was a lot of fun. Your only responsibility was to keep an eye on the humpers and ensure the trailer was as close to them as possible.
There was a good little assortment of people working at the farm. As well as my ubiquitous fellow Brits, there were travellers from France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Taiwan, and Japan. And although the farm, like many others like it across the country, relied on a constant influx of backpackers who were looking to earn their second-year visa, they also employed their fair share of locals. This made for a great cultural exchange of sorts with which the backpackers would regale the locals with tales of travels, and they’d educate us about the local area and even take us out exploring.
Two such locals were Matty and Mark, both of whom I got to know through being my cutter. Matty didn’t say much initially and had retained a reputation for being quiet, but he opened up when we talked about our favourite music. Mark, on the other hand, was a lot more social and got a real kick out of hanging out with the backpackers. He was a fixture at the pub on Friday nights and, as he had a talent for brewing his own alcohol, many of us ended up at his house after closing time. Most of the locals from the farm had other skills and were only working there until the right opportunity in their field came along. Humping was a job they could fall back on, so like us, they were there more out of necessity than choice.
The division of labour at the farm was simple: the men worked outside and the women worked inside. Most of the guys worked out in the paddocks, with a few remaining in the warehouse to undertake the more physical tasks involved in processing the bunches, such as hauling them off the trailers. It was then up to the girls to inspect the bunches, sort them according to size, and pack them for shipping. Although it would appear the girls had a cushier job, getting to sit down in an air-conditioned building and listen to music as they worked, they faced a different challenge: boredom. Many of the girls were itching to be outside with us, but they weren’t permitted to. While our job was physically demanding, it was never dull. We were tasked with contending with nature: the heat, rain, uneven muddy ground, and most notably, the wildlife.
For a start, if you’re not fond of insects, banana farming (and probably most farming come to think of it) wouldn’t be a great choice. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t encounter some sort of gnarly, creepy crawly that I’d never seen before. But that’s not to say a few favourites wouldn’t make regular appearances too. For instance, mosquitos would appear in full force when the ground was soggy from rain. So not only were you soaked from the rain, you’d have to contend with getting stung as well. It was woeful.
There was also a time when these awful, huge, biting flies appeared seemingly out of nowhere to wreak havoc. ‘Well, I guess this is a new thing now,’ I remember thinking to myself as they frequently chomped at my skin with their distinctive, sharp bite. However, the marsh flies, as I quickly discovered they were called, were slow and were easy to swat. So to keep ourselves sane, we devised a game in which we’d keep count of how many we managed to kill. But just as suddenly as they appeared, they vanished. And to the relief of absolutely everyone, were never seen again.
But as annoying and unpleasant as the assortment of insects were, what really struck fear in the heart of many a backpacker were the snakes and spiders. Some of the spiders, like wolf spiders, huntsman, and freaky-looking, golden orb spiders, were huge, while others were smaller. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’m afraid of spiders, but I’m not crazy about the way they look or move. So seeing them frequently and having them constantly crawling on your body took some getting used to, but it’s an adjustment I was able to make.
But while spiders were a daily occurrence, seeing a snake was an event. Once, as we were heading back to the warehouse, we saw two ambulances whizzing past us. We soon discovered that Liam had reported being bitten by a snake. However, those that had been at the farm before me we unconvinced and unsympathetic. This had happened before you see, and it turned out to be an insect bite or a thorn. But Liam insisted he’d been bitten this time, and it’s best not to chance such things; hence the ambulances.
As a result, a local snake expert was brought in to educate us about the region’s snakes, and, more importantly, how to treat someone in the event of a bite. I remember listening to him talk and couldn’t help but feel bemused at where my life had taken me. A year before, I sat in a cosy farmhouse with a cup of tea, talking to a group of women about their diet. And now, I was learning how to bandage a wound in the event one of my mates was bitten by a highly venomous snake.
“Here is a list of the ten most venomous snakes in the world,” he said, showing us a chart. “Seven of these snakes can be found in Australia, five of them are right here in Queensland,” he continued. I’d encounter three of those snakes before my time was through.
Unlike elsewhere I’d been in Australia at that point, where backpackers would party on any given night, evenings during the week were quiet. Everyone was so shattered from their day on the farm that we just about managed to cook ourselves some dinner and prepare for the next day before retiring to our rooms. However, that all changed each Friday. After an early 11am finish, we’d have the rest of the afternoon to recharge and we’d all descend on one of the two pubs in town. With everyone desperate to let off some steam, there was no telling what was going to happen. In fact, the gossip generated each Friday would sustain us for the rest of the week!
The rest of the weekend was a lot tamer, with many of us exploring the area, taking little trips to nearby creeks and lakes. Cardwell felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, but it was only a few hours away from cities such as Cairns and Townsville, as well as other great spots such as Mission Beach, Hitchenbrook Island, and Magnetic Island.
One such trip saw five of us spontaneously rent a car and head to Magnetic Island for a Halloween Full Moon party on a Friday night. We weren’t able to book a hostel in time, so we simply partied on the beach all night, snoozed in the car, and headed back mid-morning on Saturday.
Although I initially dreaded the idea of working on a farm for three months, it turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life. What I initially saw as an inconvenience that I wanted out of the way as soon as possible, ended up being one of the most memorable periods of my time in Australia. I developed friendships with people from all over the world, had a lot of great times, and, in undertaking something different and adverse, learned a lot about myself.
I left the farm in mid-November and headed back up to Cairns, where I’d start my month travelling down the East Coast. I checked into a hostel for the first time in months, headed to a nearby bar and sat down to enjoy a cold, refreshing, and well-earned pint of beer.
Check out more stories on scouts and wanderers.